Article II: Inside Impeachment
Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Friday, November 1st. And here's what's happening.
Kornacki: This has been a momentous week in the impeachment trauma for two reasons.
Archival Recording: Bombshell testimony tonight. For the first time, a first-hand witness to the explosive conversation that ignited the impeachment inquiry.
Archival Recording: Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman who's the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council.
Archival Recording: The Purple Heart recipient, wounded in Iraq, corroborating others who've testified this was a quid pro quo bribery plot.
Kornacki: And that was one of them. Testimony on Tuesday from someone who almost no one had heard of before this week, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman. Vindman was one of four witnesses who appeared before Congress this week. And there was also a no-show. And that no-show, Democrats say, is evidence of obstruction.
Archival Recording: If this witness had something to say that would be helpful to the White House, they would want him to come and testify. They plainly don't.
Kornacki: No question for Democrats seeking to make a case for the impeachment of President Trump. This has been a big week. But as we keep saying, impeachment is not a legal proceeding. It is a political one. Donald Trump's fate rests not with an impartial jury of his peers, but with a highly partial, highly partisan jury of elected Democrats and Republicans. And on that front, the political front, this has also been a big week.
Against the backdrop of all this accumulating testimony, a vote in the House. A resolution to affirm the existence of an impeachment inquiry, and to set guidelines for how it will operate. And the final vote, that went almost completely along party lines.
Archival Recording: Americans understand that this is unfair. Americans get fairness. They instinctively know this is unfair and partisan process.
Archival Recording: So what is at stake is our democracy. What are we fighting for? Defending our democracy for the people.
Kornacki: Remember. If Donald Trump is ultimately removed from office, it will only be because there are Republicans who turn against him. In the House this week, there were none. What we learned this week about the case against Trump and the politics that will decide his fate, today on Article II.
Kristen Welker is a White House correspondent for NBC News. Kristen, thank you for joining us.
Kristen Welker: Thank you for having me, Steve.
Kornacki: So a lot to get to at the end. I mean, we're always saying these weeks are busy. This one was extra busy by the standards of Washington and impeachment and the era we live in.
Welker: Indeed it was.
Kornacki: There was Charles Kupperman on Monday. And for folks who don't remember Charles Kupperman, part of the National Security Council, deputy to John Bolton. He was subpoenaed. He was supposed to appear Monday. He didn't end up showing up. Lawmakers didn't hear from him. That's because there's now actually a court case going on.
What was interesting though was that the chairman of the intelligence committee who's sort of overseeing these hearings, Adam Schiff, Democrat from California, he said that the fact of Kupperman's no-show could end up amounting to evidence for the impeachment inquiry.
Archival Recording: It is also I think very plain, additional, and powerful evidence of obstruction of Congress and its lawful function by the president that the White House has obstructed the work of a co-equal branch of government.
Kornacki: Is that what we learned this week with Kupperman? That if you're a witness, if you don't show up, Democrats are gonna say, "Okay, we will just assume that whatever you had to say, it was in some way incriminating for Trump." And it will be part of the record of the impeachment inquiry that way?
Welker: I think that Adam Schiff has consistently said that witnesses who don't show up could essentially help them build a case for obstruction. Government's saying, "Look, the White House is telling me not to testify." You are telling me, "I have to appear.
"So I'm throwing my hands up. And I'm letting courts decide." It's a way of removing himself from the politics of this and really allowing a judge to make the final decision here. But yes, both sides are gonna pounce on this, Steve. And we're seeing Adam Schiff already do that.
Kornacki: The other question that's raised by it then, and we mentioned the connection to John Bolton. Democrats would like to hear from John Bolton. This was his deputy, Kupperman, who declined to appear. They also share a lawyer.
Kornacki: So does the fact that Kupperman took this approach tell us what might happen with Bolton when Democrats try to get him to appear?
Welker: I think it does. And we should say the Kupperman case is still pending. The lawyers, I think, have to submit their briefs by November 14th. So we still are waiting the outcome of that. As it relates to John Bolton, yes, I think it's likely we could see a similar scenario unfold.
What we know, he lawyer released a statement this week saying that he's not willing to appear voluntarily. They're basically taking the same sort of tactic. I think you can expect to see a pretty big fight over John Bolton and whether he comes to testify and speak to House Democrats.
Kornacki: We mentioned up front, Alexander Vindman, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a career military officer, part of the National Security Council, testified this week. What is the big takeaway from Vindman's testimony that may shape this impeachment inquiry going forward?
Welker: Vindman was significant for a couple of reasons. 1) He made the point that he was in fact concerned by that July 25th phone call. Steve, he was the first official White House official to testify who was actually on the call. He said he didn't think it was proper what he heard on the call.
The fact that you had the president essentially pressing or asking a foreign leader to investigate the 2016 campaign and to investigate the Bidens. So that's one piece of it. But he's significant for another reason.
Because he also, according to those who were in the room, made the case that before that transcript of the July 25th phone call were made public, he actually wanted to make some additions to it because he was concerned that some references had been removed, including a reference to the Bidens.
And so that is I think one of the significant things that came out of his testimony. Now, the White House almost immediately fired back at him. And I'll just read you a little part of the statement by the press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, who said, "The media is reporting that Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman claims he proposed filling in words that were missing in areas where ellipses were shown in the transcript." The is false.
So the White House trying to sort of put an end to any debate over that. But again, the reports from his testimony have created a real problem here for the White House in regards to the substance of the notes from the call that were released by the White House.
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Kornacki: Tim Morrison testifying on Thursday. Who is Tim Morrison? Tim Morrison just resigned actually. He was the senior director of European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council. He testified on Thursday. And what emerged from this one was different in terms of how it was processed by Washington.
Because I saw Democrats touting some aspects of what he apparently said. What they say happened with Morrison, is they say, "Hey, look, Morrison affirmed that there was a quid pro quo here." What did he say on that front?
Welker: On that front Morrison, who by the way, was the second White House official to actually say that he was on that July 25th phone call. He said that he did have some concerns about the nature of the call.
But he also said, Steve, that he could corroborate the testimony of Bill Taylor. Bill Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, who essentially was the first senior official to really put forward the idea that there was in fact a quid pro quo.
Now, he didn't use the term quid pro quo. But he really laid out a very vivid picture of the president pressuring Ukraine, not only threatening to withhold military aid, but threatening to withhold a White House visit for the president of Ukraine if these investigations didn't take place.
So here you have Tim Morrison this week saying, "Yes. That is true. I can attest to that." And that's the piece that Democrats are seizing on. I anticipate your next questions gonna be, "Well, what are Republicans seizing on?" (LAUGH)
Kornacki: Right, I heard Republicans say, "Nothing illegal happened." And he said that idea of the transcript being, you know, doctored or altered in some meaningful way, he contested that as well. Is that what Republicans are kind of crowing about?
Welker: It is. And I think that first part of what you said is what they are going to really focus on. There was nothing illegal about it. I've been talking to White House officials today who say this was a win for the president. President Trump even thanking him for this testimony, for vindicating him on the phone call.
But let's take a step back. Because what Democrats are trying to determine and really the question before Congress is not whether the president broke the law, but whether he did anything that was an abuse of his office, an abuse of his position as president.
And so that's really the question before them. It's almost as if Tim Morrison is saying, "Look, I can't wade into those waters. I wanna make it very clear. I'm not passing any type of legal judgment here. I didn't think there was anything legal about it. Here's what I know to be true about what I heard and what I witnessed."
Kornacki: All right, now let's move to my favorite part, the politics. We had a vote this week.
Welker: Yes. (LAUGH) My favorite part too.
Kornacki: We had a House vote this week. Thursday, this resolution Democrats put together sort of affirmed that there was an impeachment inquiry. It was a vote. It was essentially along party lines. Every Republican voted against it. Every Democrat voted for it except for two.
Archival Recording: All in favor say aye. Opposed no.
Archival Recording: On this vote the ayes are 232. The nays are 196. The resolution is adopted without objection. The motion to reconsider is laid upon the table.
Kornacki: Is that a sign that Republicans are deeply locked in behind Trump on this no matter what?
Welker: I think this is, it underscores how sharply divided our country is right now, our politics are right now. But it underscores the fact that this is still largely a Democratic effort. Yes, you have some Republican voices saying they are concerned. Mitt Romney, chief among them.
But you don't see a groundswell of support for removing the president from office or for really supporting this impeachment inquiry. Will that change? Could that change? It could. It could. But right now Republicans are staunchly standing with President Trump.
You saw that yesterday on the House floor. So you had Kevin McCarthy who was out decrying this entire process, basically making the case that this has been a sham from the start. Steve Scalise, these Republican leaders who are essentially sounding a lot like President Trump in their opposition to how this has been handled from the get-to.
Archival Recording: Democrats are trying to impeach the president because they are scared they cannot defeat him at the ballot box.
Welker: Attacking the process of this.
Archival Recording: Thirty-seven days and counting, they have run an unprecedented, undemocratic, and unfair investigation.
Welker: And trying to make the case that the whole thing has been illegitimate effectively. Now, Nancy Pelosi would take acceptation to that. She would make the case that the constitution says the House has sole power over impeachment. And that they held this vote yesterday to sort of lay out the rules of the road moving forward. But right now, Republican support, very solid.
Kornacki: I saw Bill Kristol, a conservative and Trump critic. He is saying that he thinks a lot of these Republicans who voted against this inquiry resolution this week were simply getting it on the record so they didn't get any attacks from Trump right now.
But that quietly they're open to voting to impeach him when it finally comes to it. Does that strike you? You have a good of this. Does that strike you as wishful thinking on his part? Or does that strike you as a viable possibility here?
Welker: Well, look, I am really curious to see what happens once these hearings are out in the open. What we have seen, Steve, is we've seen public support start to steadily increase frankly for impeachment. It still very much falls along party lines.
But you are seeing more Americans, and frankly even more Republicans say, "Yes, we at least support the inquiry." Now, it gets more divided when you talk about actually removing the president from office. So I guess I would say I do think the public hearings could sway some Republican law makers.
But think about once they go home to their home districts. For those who live in, you know, heavily Trump districts, it could be hard. Even if they do think, "Well, I disagree with what happened here." It could be politically very difficult for them to break with the president.
So I think there's a real question mark. That could be more wishful thinking. It certainly looks like wishful thinking at this point. But again we have to wait and see what happens once these officials are out in public and saying some of this stuff for the American people to hear.
Kornacki: Let me ask you to put on your hat explicitly as the White House correspondent here. Inside the White House, as this plays out on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in Congress, how are they processing this week? How are they processing the vote? How are they processing the evidence, the testimony that emerged?
Welker: You know, you can always get a sense of what it's like based on sort of how it feels just to be here talking to administration officials. Is there a sense of frenzy and concern? I have to say there hasn't been that this week. There certainly have been a number of high level meetings.
These are folks who are no strangers to fighting (LAUGH) as a part of working within the Trump administration. Because they did go through the Mueller investigation. And so they've sort of gone back into that mode. They say they feel as though the president's got a strong case to make.
And we saw that laid out this week, Steve. The president released a campaign ad during World Series trying to paint the Democrats as the do-nothing party. And then sort of mapping out all of what he sees to be his accomplishments. So they've gone back into that battle tested mode.
I will caveat that by saying one thing. I think there's an awareness here that they want to have a more rapid response strategy in place. They know that they need to be a little bit more agile and ready when it comes to the substance. Having said all of that, I don't have to tell you this, Steve.
The president sees himself as his own best communicator. He talked about maybe having a fireside chat to read his July 25th phone call. And so that's not going to change. But I would say they know that this is entering a new phase. So this not frenzy and concern here. But that there is a sense that, okay, we've gotta beef up our communications team. We've gotta beef up our rapid response team to some extent.
Kornacki: All right, Kristen Welker, White House correspondent for NBC News. And also by the way when you watch the Democratic presidents debate, Kristen will be one of the moderators. Kristen, thank you so much for joining us.
Welker: Thank you, Steve. I'll be preparing all weekend and right up until the debate. (LAUGH)
Kornacki: Good luck with it.
Welker: Thanks, Steve.
Kornacki: There are no depositions on Capitol Hill today. But next week will be a big one. Four officials are requested to testify on Monday alone. And we have another listener question to close out the week. Alan in Somerset, New Jersey, asked us about the July 25th phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian president Zelenskiy. He talked about the back and forth over the content of the call. And he asked why didn't the White House just make a recording. Decided to put this question to Kristen before we hung up.
Welker: It's a great question. Look, I spoke to a senior administration official who said, "We don't record the president's phone calls with foreign leaders." That is in part because of what they are discussing is classified. Typically what happens in these cases, to Alan, and to all of our listeners is that you have a number of senior officials who are listening to calls of this nature, who are taking very detailed notes.
And so you do get what is close to a transcript. And that is what the public has seen basically, that the notes of the call, what the White House would say is the closest thing that they can re-recreate, that they can get to a transcript.
The question though is does Ukraine have a recording? It's quite possible that they do. My colleague Kelly O'Donnell actually asked the president, "Does a recording exist of the call?" And he said, "I don't wanna talk about that." It's one of the questions that sort of looms over this. I don't wanna suggest we have any evidence to paint to that, but it is one of the big questions we have. Is it possible that they perhaps recorded this call?
Kornacki: Well, if Ukraine does have a recording of that call, it would certainly make things interesting. But I wanted to know whether it's normal for a White House not to record conversations like this. So who better to call, but Michael Beschloss, NBC presidential historian? I decided to dial him up. (NOISE) Michael, it's Steve Kornecki. How you doin'?
Michael Beschloss: Oh, great to talk, Steve.
Kornacki: I wanna kinda broaden things out with you in just this general idea of calls being taped in the White House. What's the history of that in terms of what presidents have done across sort of modern time?
Beschloss: Well, presidents from Franklin Roosevelt through Richard Nixon taped private conversations with people on the telephone and in the Oval Office without their knowledge. Roosevelt did it because he wanted an exact record. Kennedy did it to record meetings largely like the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Lyndon Johnson did it because if he wanted to make a deal with a senator who double crossed him, he wanted to make sure that there was evidence of the commitment that the senator had made. And in Nixon's case, a lot of this was, he wanted to tape conversations that would show him to be a great president that he could put in his memoirs.
Problem was at the time of Watergate, that was all evidence. And Congress and the courts went to Nixon and said, "We want to hear your tapes because we want to know if you were guilty or not." And the result of course is the smoking gun tape that caused Nixon to be subject to impeachment.
And so ever since then, there's been sort of a feeling that presidents should not tape private conversations. Gerald Ford even had the microphones dug out of the Oval Office desk to show that he wouldn't do that.
Kornacki: Yeah, that's probably a pretty good incentive not to tape conversations. If a president gets run out of office after that. Michael Beschloss, really appreciate having you on. Thank you for taking a few minutes.
Beschloss: My pleasure always. Be well.
Kornacki: And a big thank you to Alan in Somerset, New Jersey, for that question. By the way, Somerset, New Jersey, this is the funny thing about New Jersey. There's a Somerset in Somerset County. There's a Somerset County. And there's a Somerset in Mercer County.
So I don't know which Somerset Alan in Somerset, New Jersey, is from. But whichever Somerset you're from, Alan, thank you for sending it in. You can email anything you won't to know about impeachment to Article II podcast at gmail.com. Article Two, two written out as a word. T-W-O. Article Two podcast at gmail.com.
Send us an email that way. Or how about this? You could give us a call. You could call our special impeachment question hotline. It's a voicemail message. You can leave your question there. The number is 646-397-5166. Give that number a call. There'll be a prompt. You can then leave your question.
We'll get a sense of what you sound like. That might be kinda interesting. The number, 646-397-5166. Give us a call, give us an email. Either way, keep those questions coming. We love getting them. Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Allison Bailey, Adam Naboa, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Monday.